Look, there’s no way I can make this as short as I would like it to be. So I’ll tell you from the get-go, I think we’re looking at at least three parts. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover here. Like, for instance, did you know that we (we being the United States, not some garbage country like Canada or anything) went to kinda-war with France in the late 1790’s? And that we went to war with a buncha pirates TWICE? And also that the War of 1812 was cool as shit? Hell no you didn’t!
So, like I said: a lot of ground. But it’s awesome ground. And an awesome dude played a major part in it. That dude is Stephen Decatur. You’ve probably heard of some crappy town that’s named after him, but probably didn’t know that he was likely headed for the Presidency. Unfortunately, that plan got all screwed up when he was killed in a duel by his mentor/father figure after they basically had a full-on hip hop beef, dropping diss track after diss track until the only thing left to do was to shoot at each other. And, oh yeah, a high level military conspiracy was probably involved too. With all that in mind, let me learn ya somethin’ about one of my favorite figures in American history.
The Early Years
Alright, most of this part is kinda boring. Decatur was a bad student and moved around a lot. He liked the sea. He could swim, which I guess was kinda rare for that time. Who cares. What’s really important is that, while a midshipman on the United States, (the frigate, not the country) he once called his friend a fool while joking around. Some dudes overheard it and accused Decatur’s friend of being a punk ass who had his honor besmirched. Decatur tried to tell these guys that he was just joking around, but they weren’t having it. So Decatur’s friend, Richard Somers, challenged each of these three guys to duels on the same day (you may have seen something similar in the 1993 movie version of The Three Musketeers).
First duel, ol’ Dickie Somers gets shot in the right arm. Second duel, he has to hold his pistol in his left hand, which is a dumb idea, and so he gets shot in the hip. Now he can’t stand up, can’t hold a gun, but still wants to have that third duel. He tries to duel, but falls down. But he still isn’t going to quit. Decatur is such a crazy ass that he stands next to Somers and holds him up while the third duel goes down, holding up Somers’ arm so that he can shoot straight. He got out unscathed, Dick Somers’ honor in tact. A couple months later, Decatur dueled another guy just because his dad made up an insane family motto. He shot the dude in the hip because he didn’t feel like killing him. Kinda nice if you think about it.
Okay, I’m not gonna give you a whole early American history lesson here. But this happened. We kinda fought France at sea for three years. Decatur was involved. It’s an interesting period. You should at least read the Wikipedia article about it. A guy named William Bainbridge lost a battle and had to surrender his ship to the French. Maybe you should remember that for later.
The First Barbary War - Part 1
From 1801 to 1805, we were at war with Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. Crazy, right? Basically, they were a bunch of pirates that preyed on merchant vessels that came into their waters. They’d stop with the pirate stuff if you paid them tribute. The U.S. wasn’t too into that back then. So we had to kick their asses.
In 1803, Decatur was given command of a little 12-gun schooner, the USS Enterprise. He used it to kick the ass of a Tripolitan ketch, Mastico. Decatur and his boys took the ship and made it their own, renaming it Intrepid.
Around this same time, William Bainbridge (the same guy from before!) is in command of a 36-gun frigate, Philadelphia. While patrolling outside Tripoli Harbor, he fucks up really bad and runs the ship aground. The Americans work like crazy to lighten the load and try to float the ship. Water, food, guns, everything is dumped over the side. But it’s no use. The Tripolitan fleet comes out to meet them and they have to surrender. Lucky for the Tripolitans, Bainbridge did a pretty shitty job of trying to scuttle the ship, and they’re able to float it when a storm comes in, and also get all the guns out of the water and back on the decks.
Now, the Philadelphia is a bad ass boat. It’s sitting in Tripoli Harbor, hella guns ready to destroy anything that comes near it. And the Americans realize they’re screwed if the Tripolitans have a ship that can take on one of their own. So they come up with a ridiculous plan. Stephen Decatur, because he really doesn’t give a FUCK, volunteers to save the day.
The Intrepid, which if you were paying attention, you would know that Decatur had captured earlier, is a Tripolitan ketch, and blends in perfectly with the hundreds of other boats in Tripoli Harbor. So, under cover of darkness, Decatur and a small crew sail into the harbor, pretending to be anything but Americans. As a result of some pretty lax security, they’re allowed to sail the Intrepid right up next to the Philadelphia. By the time the Tripolitans realize anything is up, Decatur and his crew have jumped on board the Philadelphia, and they get to stabbing and hacking fools to death.
Before anyone even knows what’s happened, the Americans have taken the ship. So they do the only natural thing, and load it full of gunpowder and explosives and set it on fire. In less than 20 minutes, Decatur and his crew took the ship, set it ablaze, and got the hell out of there, sailing the Intrepid to safety. The Philadelphia broke free from its moorings and drifted down the harbor, burning the entire night for all of Tripoli to see.
When he learned of Decatur’s destruction of the Philadelphia, Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the Age.” For those not in the know, that’s like Mike Trout saying you’re the best baseball player he’s ever seen. It made Decatur an instant celebrity. It was just the beginning of an amazing naval career, and the first of many triumphs that would lead to Decatur becoming one of the most famous people in the young United States.
There’s a whole lot more to tell. The dude did a ridiculous amount of awesome stuff. Next time, we’ll get into Decatur killing a giant in hand to hand combat, and probably the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Good night, Sidespin.
Here are links to the rest of it: